The Western Slope is the area of Colorado that is West of the Continental Divide. My Grandparents moved from the South side of Chicago to Olathe, Colorado on the western slope when my Mom was a teenager. I can’t even imagine what sort of culture shock that was to go from a house in the city with running water and indoor plumbing to a cabin in the country where they had to pump their water and use an outhouse. I’m sure that this time in my Mom’s life helped mold her into the strong woman that she is today. I’ve spent time there as a kid but wanted to see it again as an adult.
Mancos to Montrose
We drove Highway 145 from Mancos to Montrose. It was a beautiful drive and we were surprised by the amount of snow on the top of the passes considering it was the beginning of June. At the top of one of the passes we saw a wolf standing in the snow. Of course by the time we saw it we couldn’t stop and I couldn’t get my camera out in time. But, that sighting gave us something to talk about for quite awhile.
We decided to stay in Montrose because we could easily drive Highway 550 to Silverton, visit Black Canyon of the Gunnison and explore the area where my Mom spent her teen years. We chose the KOA because it had good reviews, was right in town and had a pool and hot tub! We had a great site with a big “front yard”.
Our first outing was a bike ride on the Uncompaghre River Walk. This trail is just over 14 miles long so with an out and back we biked almost 30 miles. The trail passes the Ute Indian Museum and if we had brought our bike lock, we would have visited the museum. From now on our lock is always in my basket, just in case. The scenery is beautiful and when we crossed the river we were able to see rafters.
When I told my Mom that we were staying in Montrose, she suggested that we go to the Star Drive-In. She said it has been owned and operated by someone in the DeVries family (my grandfather’s side of the family) for 70 years. My Mom and Grandma used to help out in the concession stand when they would go to the movies. My cousin Pam runs it now so when we got to the admission booth I asked the woman in the booth if Pam was there. She told me that she was Pam’s daughter April and I explained who I was. I tried to find Pam throughout the night but she was busy. I had almost given up when I decided to try one more time, so I found April and she took me to the projection room, knocked on the door and introduced me to Pam. We were only able to talk for a few minutes but she had memories of my Mom, Grandma and Grandpa. John and I (and the dogs) enjoyed sitting in the truck, eating popcorn and watching movies “the old fashioned” way.
Olathe, Colorado is a very small town with a population under 2,000. It is known for its sweet corn and each year they have a Sweet Corn Festival in August. The cabin and house where my Mom lived are no longer there but we visited Olathe so I could pay my respects to my grandparents at the cemetery.
Those of you that know us know that we like to find wineries wherever we go. We found two in Olathe, Mountain View Orchard and Winery and Cottonwood Cellars. We enjoyed Mountain View and some of their wines. I liked the Chipeta White which is a blend of Chardonnay and Muscat. It’s a semi-sweet and is named after a Chipeta, the second wife of Chief Ouray. I remember my Mom telling me about Chipeta before I learned about her in school. She was born in the 1840s and died in the 1924. She was known also as White Singing Bird and was part of the Uncompaghre Ute tribe but was born as a Kiowa Apache. After her husband the chief died, she continued as a leader of her people. She was an Indian rights advocate and diplomat and used her diplomacy to try to gain peace with white settlers in Colorado. In 1985 she was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame. We bought a couple bottles of the Chipeta White to share with my Mom in a couple weeks.
Cottonwood Cellars was a weird experience. We wanted to learn about the wines and the woman told us their entire life story instead. The wines weren’t very good and we left without buying anything. Not every winery is a winner!
Highway 550 (The Million Dollar Highway)
I had originally planned for us to drive the motorhome towing the truck from Durango on Highway 550 but when I said something to my Mom about it she said we might want to re-think that. I did some research on the highway and we decided that we would rather drive it in our 18 foot truck than our 65 feet of motorhome and truck. I’m so glad we did. It would have been extremely scary and there was one tunnel where we would have cleared the top by one inch. We drove from Montrose to Silverton and on our return we stopped in Ouray to enjoy the hot springs.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
From our RV Park in Montrose, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park’s South Rim was only 20 minutes away. We drove up in the afternoon on June 13, 2020 to get a map and go the Visitor Center. The drive to a variety of overlooks is paved and there was plenty of parking at each overlook. There are 12 overlooks on the South rim, some are only a few steps from the parking lot and others are about 1/4 mile walk. Several of the overlooks are perched right on the edge and seem a bit precarious but are very safe. We visited some of the overlooks. Below is a slideshow of photos taken from the drive and overlooks.
We drove back the next day so we go to the other overlooks, drive down to the river and to hike. We started with a drive down East Portal Road to the river. It’s a steep road with hairpin turns and along the road were some beautiful purple wildflowers. Once at the bottom of the road we parked and found a trail along the river to hike. Unfortunately we couldn’t go far because the river was so high it covered the trail. The best part of this hike was coming across a kaleidoscope (yes, that’s what it’s called) of butterflies in a puddle. We also saw a snake that seemed to stop and pose for me to take a picture. At the end of the road was the Crystal Dam. It’s the third dam in the Colorado River Storage and is just over 300 feet high. It doesn’t spill over all of the time which was disappointing. We found out later that we could have called the Bureau of Reclamation to find out when it would be spilling.
We drove back up from the river and visited some of the other overlooks. There were amazing views of the canyon including chasm view, painted wall and others. We saw a variety of wildflowers and birds as well.
There are only four hikes on the South Rim and we decided to do the Oak Flat Loop Trail which is the longest one (only two miles) but was rated strenuous. The trail was narrow in quite a few places and requires navigating some steep slopes. It begins near the Visitor Center so we were worried that it would be crowded but we only came across two others on the trail. We thought we would get some good canyon and river views but only found one unmarked overlook that provided views downstream. The hike was strenuous and we were tired when we finished.
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is spectacular and its name is because it is so narrow and deep that it’s difficult for sunlight to reach its depths and the walls are covered in shadows making them look black. Parts of the gorge receives just 33 minutes of sunlight a day. The narrowest part of the canyon is 40 feet from the South rim to the North rim. If you are on the Western Slope of Colorado, in our opinion, this is a “don’t miss”.
We stayed in Grand Junction for a couple nights because we were dropping our coach off for service while we go to visit my Mom. We stayed at the Grand Junction KOA at a nice site.
As shown above, the weather wasn’t great so we didn’t get to do much sightseeing but decided we should at least take a drive to Colorado National Monument while we were there. We definitely need to go back there another time to see more. Below are some photos of the drive.
The Western Slope of Colorado is often overlooked as tourists prefer to be in the middle of the Rocky Mountains or on the front range in the cities. Don’t overlook it! There are so many great towns, things to see and do, food and wine to taste and history to explore. We still have a lot to see and will likely go back in a few years.